Spreading Joy

Inside McGlone Elementary, a rising Denver turnaround school with even higher hopes

PHOTO: Roy Barnett/McGlone
McGlone principal Sara Gips Goodall and some of her students.

The staff at McGlone Elementary School has a mantra: Happy kids learn more.

It’s why the extended-day school in far northeast Denver offers nearly two hours of specials like art and music per day, why the cheerful and affectionate principal keeps a few “golden tickets” clipped to her lanyard to give out as rewards and why the classrooms aren’t the hushed, sit-up-straight, no-excuses type you might find elsewhere.

On a recent afternoon, two fifth grade boys in matching navy polo shirts and spiky hairdos huddled next to each other in teacher Matt Johnson’s math class. Sharing a single notebook page, they worked to solve 1 divided by 3, their skinny elbows pressed together in the unselfconscious way of elementary school students.

“It should be three halves!” one exclaimed.

“Why?” the other asked.

“Oh, wait!” the first boy cried out. “Thirds!”

McGlone’s joyful philosophy seems to be working. Once one of the lowest performing schools in the city, its impressive academic growth has turned it into a district darling. Then-U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan toured the school last spring, and the district recently made a video about McGlone after its students showed remarkable improvement on state literacy tests.

But McGlone wants to do more. In a district that values innovation and encourages its school leaders to think like entrepreneurs, the Montbello neighborhood elementary school — where 97 percent of the students are minorities and 95 percent are living in poverty — is asking to expand to serve sixth, seventh and eighth graders.

It’s somewhat of an unusual request. But leaders say that McGlone graduates who are used to a nurturing environment where hugs are as common as hellos are struggling at the area’s secondary schools, many of which follow a sixth-through-12th-grade model.

“I wonder if the system we have set up right now tells us that childhood in Montbello is over at age 11,” said principal Sara Gips Goodall. She hates to think of her babies, as she calls them, losing their way.

“I think our success hinges on kids feeling so supported and so loved.”

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Five years ago, McGlone was among the worst performing schools in the city. It was ranked red, the lowest category in Denver Public Schools’ color-coded school rating system — and it wasn’t the only one in far northeast Denver.

McGlone has gone from "red" to "green" in DPS's school rating system.
PHOTO: Roy Barnett/McGlone
McGlone has gone from “red” to “green.”

In late 2010, DPS took drastic and controversial action in that part of the city. For McGlone, that meant undergoing “turnaround,” an attempt to transform the school with the help of more money and a new staff but without shutting it down and starting from scratch. Teachers at McGlone had to reapply for their jobs; only a handful were rehired.

School turnarounds don’t always work. Some DPS turnarounds have continued to flounder. But McGlone has shown progress.

Today the school is ranked green, the district’s second-highest rating. It’s gone from a place where only 10 percent of teachers stayed year after year to one where 90 percent do, according to its own statistics, and its enrollment has increased by more than 150 kids.

While McGlone’s test scores have risen, they’re still below district averages. Just 20 percent of students met or exceeded expectations on state literacy language arts tests taken last spring, compared to 32 percent districtwide. But McGlone kids showed more academic growth in literacy last year than any other elementary school in Denver, according to the district’s number crunching.

“This school was really, really low — and now we’re the highest,” said fifth grader Luis Salcedo.

McGlone’s math scores were similar: 17 percent of students met or exceeded expectations versus 26 percent districtwide. But McGlone students showed growth there, too.

Salcedo and two other students led a recent school tour past bulletin boards festooned with test data, a science class where kids eagerly awaited the arrival of fish and snails for an experiment, and a gymnasium full of screeching first and fifth graders playing tag while Katy Perry blared from a set of speakers. When the teacher blew the whistle, the kids plopped down in rows and recited the names of different muscles. “Abdominals! Abdominals! Abdominals!”

“The teachers are always having your back and always teaching you what you need to know to pass the test,” said another fifth grader, William Campos, who has attended McGlone since preschool — before the turnaround. “And you always feel safe. And proud of coming in.”

“Before, the teachers would scream at the kids and the kids would run around,” said fifth grader Rebecca Cisneros, who’s also been there since preschool. “But now I feel like it’s more stable and safe.” When asked why, she offered this: “I guess because of Ms. Goodall.”

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Goodall came to Denver in 2008 as a Teach for America teacher. She was assigned to Godsman Elementary, a high-poverty school in the southwest part of the city. She ended up staying three years, a year longer than was required, before leaving to attend the Harvard School Leadership Program, where she interned at a Boston turnaround school.

Goodall with a fifth grade class that won one of McGlone's character awards.
PHOTO: Sara Gips Goodall/McGlone
Goodall with a fifth grade class that won one of McGlone’s character awards.

Eager to apply what she’d learned in a city she’d grown to love, the native East Coaster returned to Denver and started as an assistant principal at McGlone in the fall of 2012.

McGlone had become an innovation school the year before, meaning it was granted the flexibility to do things such as extend its school year and school day to help kids catch up. Students were making academic gains, but the school’s culture had taken a hit, Goodall said.

“Kids were angry,” she said. In addition to mandatory uniforms and a longer school day, she said, the students were being taught by new teachers who were asking them to work harder.

That year, Goodall met with a group of teachers and asked them what she saw as an important question: How can the administrators support you in building a better school culture?

They ended up writing a culture plan that includes monthly assemblies where both kids and teachers give shout outs, as well as several new recognitions and awards. The biggest is the Pack Leader (McGlone’s mascot is the Lobos), which students earn “for being a really good kid,” Goodall said. The Pack Leader isn’t necessarily the highest grade getter but is someone with good attendance who tries hard, shows improvement and has pride in the school.

“We’ve done tons of different stuff to say, ‘You matter as a person as well as a math score,’” she said.

When Goodall became principal in 2013, she started double specials blocks. Instead of back-to-back math blocks, students might get math followed by art, music, physical education, science or technology. The schedule has several benefits, Goodall said, not the least of which is fun. More fun, she believes, leads to happier students, which means fewer disruptions and more learning.

“Your math class is going to be better because you had a great arts block,” she said.

It’s also a way to keep kids coming, even if they’re dealing with tough situations at home. “They have to have a reason to love school,” Goodall said, “and sometimes it’s not reading groups.”

Meanwhile, classroom teachers use that time to dissect student data and plan lessons. Goodall prizes professional development, and teachers said they’re not afraid to ask for help.

“You can walk into any room and ask anyone anything,” said fifth grade teacher Lizzie Newcombe. “For me, as third-year teacher, I’m still kind of starting out. The amount of expertise and collaboration is incredible.”

A McGlone first grader practices her reading.
PHOTO: Roy Barnett/McGlone
A McGlone first grader practices her reading.

McGlone was one of the first schools in the district to have teacher-leaders, who spend half their time teaching and the other half coaching other teachers. This year, Amy Lovell is one of them. A former first grade teacher, she splits her time between providing intervention for struggling readers and observing teachers and helping improve their instruction.

“We just kind of look at our kids and really try to figure out what motivates them,” she said. “We’re not traditional in that sense of, ‘Everyone turn to page 5, read together and answer questions.’ Every classroom knows their students’ strengths.”

Instructional superintendent Tanya Carter, who oversees McGlone and three other turnaround elementary schools in the far northeast, said she thinks the combination of strong academics and culture has made McGlone successful. Not every school does both well, she said.

“I think of the word ‘family’ when I think of McGlone,” Carter said. “They really do believe they are a family.”

That feeling, in addition to McGlone’s academic improvement, has changed the way the Montbello neighborhood views the school.

“A few years ago, I’d say (my kids went to) McGlone and it was like, ‘Oh, I’m sorry,’” said Shina Leonard, a paraprofessional at McGlone who has three kids who currently attend the school. “Now I say, ‘Oh, they go to McGlone,’ and it’s, ‘How do I get in?’”

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Goodall and her team have already told DPS that McGlone would like to add a middle school.

Goodall with two of McGlone's fifth grade students.
PHOTO: McGlone
Goodall with two McGlone fifth graders.

But getting one isn’t that easy. The district, which is the largest in the state and getting bigger every year, has a formal process for soliciting ideas for new schools. It’s called the Call for New Quality Schools, and the most recent one was published last week.

It calls for a new middle school in the far northeast that could open in the fall of 2017 with space for 450 students. Residential development is booming in that part of the city — and many of the new houses are single-family, which tend to yield more schoolchildren.

The district is also asking for an additional 180 to 270 middle school seats by 2017 or sooner. That’s not enough to warrant an entire new school, but the district’s request says those seats could be added to an existing school, provided it’s a top-performing one.

McGlone wants to help fill those needs. School leaders plan to submit a formal letter of intent next month and an application by April, as is required by the process. The school board will vote to approve the school ideas, and where they’ll be located, in May and June.

McGlone is already at capacity this year with 730 students. To expand would require some construction. In the meantime, Goodall has an idea: she’d like to add two sixth grade classes this fall, making room by having the two assistant principals also share her small office.

But DPS hasn’t given the interim proposal the green light, she said. Until it does, Goodall has no choice but to advise her fifth grade parents to choose other schools for their kids for sixth grade.

A McGlone student raises her hand.
PHOTO: Roy Barnett/McGlone
A McGlone student raises her hand in class.

Leonard is one of them. Her son, Damien, started at McGlone in kindergarten the year before the turnaround began. He left school that year not knowing how to write his name. Leonard was ready to switch schools but the staff pleaded with her to give turnaround a chance.

She’s glad she did. By second grade, her son had caught up. Now, his test scores are above average. But she’s worried he’ll slip again in middle school.

“These kids form their groups of friends, they feel safe, they know what’s expected of them and then you break them all apart,” she said.

The 28 students in one former McGlone fifth grade class ended up at 11 schools.

“A lot of kids fall through the cracks,” Leonard said. “That’s my biggest fear.”

Danielle Case has watched her 13-year-old son struggle after leaving McGlone two years ago.

“He had built such a good relationship with all the teachers there that when it came time to go to a middle school, it was really hard,” she said. “His friends didn’t follow him to the school that he selected. That caused a lot of depression for him and he started getting bullied a lot.”

When her son heard about the proposal to expand McGlone, Case said, “he kept saying, ‘I wish that was there when I was having to go into sixth grade.’” He continues to keep in touch with the teachers at McGlone, she said, even visiting them after school and over the summer.

Stories like that are all too common, Goodall said — and all too painful to hear.

“I’m really proud of everything our school has done,” she said. “It’s still not enough.”

McGlone teachers, parents and students advocated for a middle school at a December school board meeting.
PHOTO: McGlone
McGlone teachers, parents and students advocated for a middle school at a December school board meeting.

That’s why on a Thursday night in December, a week before Christmas, dozens of McGlone teachers, parents and students filled the gymnasium where the DPS school board holds its monthly meetings. Dressed in maroon and navy McGlone T-shirts and toting hand-drawn signs, they waited to address the board.

Johnson, the fifth grade math teacher, told a story about one of his students, named America. The girl had tried to stall taking a tough test by complaining she had to go to the bathroom.

“‘Well, Miss America, we’ve only been here for about five minutes,’” Johnson told her. “‘Do you need to go to the bathroom or do you want to go to the bathroom?’

“Well, Mr. Johnson,” she replied. “What’s the difference?’”

Eventually, Johnson said, America admitted that she wanted to go to the bathroom — and she didn’t want to take the test because it was “boring and hard.” He thanked her for her honesty and then asked another question: But do you need to take the test? Yes, America said, because she knew that understanding math would help her be successful in life.

“I tell you this story because at McGlone, we don’t always give you what you want,” Johnson told the board. “But we definitely make sure our students have what they need. And right now, what we we need is a middle school.”

new year

Here’s what Carmen Fariña’s top deputies have on their plates this school year

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña

As the person responsible for 1.1 million students, 75,000 teachers and 1,800 schools, Chancellor Carmen Fariña can’t have eyes everywhere.

She has surrounded herself with a small team of key advisors tasked with executing her vision — a group that has stayed put during Fariña’s tenure. As Fariña’s fourth school year kicks off, here’s what her core group of deputies have been working on, and what’s on their agenda this school year.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Dorita Gibson

Dorita Gibson, Senior Deputy Chancellor, Division of School Support

Salary: $225,948

Her story: Gibson has served at virtually every level of school leadership — after starting out as a teacher in Queens over 30 years ago, she rose to become an assistant principal, principal, and a high-level superintendent. She’s helped lead big changes in the way the education department supports schools, re-empowering superintendents to directly oversee principals instead of the more diffuse system of networks that were created under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

She’s also partly responsible for overseeing Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $383 million Renewal turnaround program — an ambitious effort to improve schools that have long struggled, which is approaching a key three-year milestone. But despite being Chancellor Fariña’s second in command, she has managed to keep a fairly low profile and rarely appears in the press (except when she does).

What’s on her agenda this year: The education department is dramatically expanding the number of schools with embedded social services — known as ‘community schools’ — this year and Gibson will be responsible for making sure the rollout goes smoothly. She’s also working on efforts to make the city’s specialized high schools more diverse, and oversees the city’s network of field centers designed to provide teacher training and other support services to schools.

PHOTO: New York City Department of Education
Corinne Rello-Anselmi

Corinne Rello-Anselmi, Deputy Chancellor for Specialized Instruction and Student Services

Salary: $216,219

Her story: A nearly 40-year veteran of the city’s public school system, Rello-Anselmi got her start as a special education teacher at P.S. 108 in the Bronx. After a dozen years of teaching, she worked her way up into supervisory positions, eventually becoming the school’s principal and revamping its literacy program. She made the jump to administrator in the Bloomberg administration, and was promoted to deputy chancellor to help oversee reforms designed to integrate more students with disabilities into traditional classrooms.

Advocates have repeatedly pointed out problems with the city’s special education system, including lack of access to key services. But some say Rello-Anselmi tends to be open to criticism, and is receptive to proposed fixes. “She has acknowledged the problems,” said Maggie Moroff, a special-education expert at Advocates for Children. “She’s not closing her eyes and wishing they would go away.”

What’s on her agenda: As the city continues to push all schools to serve students with a range of disabilities, Rello-Anselmi has said she will provide training and support to help schools adjust to the change. Although a working group is responsible for overseeing fixes to the city’s notoriously dysfunctional special education data system, Rello-Anselmi will be watching those changes closely.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Elizabeth Rose

Elizabeth Rose, Deputy Chancellor, Division of Operations

Salary: $197,425

Her story: Before joining the education department in 2009, Elizabeth Rose had a 20-year career in the media industry including at Vault.com, a website that ranks employers and internship programs, and the vacation planning site Travelzoo. After turning to the public sector and cutting her teeth under Kathleen Grimm, the long-serving official in charge of school operations, Rose was elevated to deputy chancellor in 2015. She has frequently been called on to manage difficult problems, including the city’s much-criticized lead-testing protocol, and a controversial rezoning on the Upper West Side.

Joe Fiordaliso — who sat across the table from Rose during the Upper West Side rezoning negotiations as the District 3 community education council president — said Rose was particularly adept at handling contentious conversations with parents. “I’ve never heard a word from her that doesn’t have purpose,” he said. “She’s not someone you’re going to knock off her game.”

What’s on her agenda: Amid a citywide homelessness crisis, Rose is responsible for connecting the one-in-eight students who have faced housing insecurity with social workers and other services. She’ll also supervise the rollout of the city’s universal free lunch program, which began this school year, and would be involved in any new rezoning efforts.

Josh Wallack with schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña

Josh Wallack, Deputy Chancellor of Early Childhood Education and Student Enrollment

Salary: $200,226

His story: Before working for the education department, Josh Wallack helped run early childhood programs at the Children’s Aid Society, and worked as legislative director to then-city councilman Bill de Blasio. So it wasn’t a surprise when he was tapped to supervise Mayor de Blasio’s signature effort to provide free pre-K to every city resident — a program that has widely been hailed as a success. Wallack, who was the first administrator to carry the title “chief strategy officer,” was later promoted to deputy chancellor of strategy and policy. But more recently, his title was changed again — to deputy chancellor of early childhood education and student enrollment.

Wallack has also spearheaded other high-profile projects, including the education department’s diversity plan, which some advocates criticized for not going far enough to support integration. Matt Gonzales, who has pushed the city to more aggressively address school segregation, said he respects Wallack (and once had the chance to talk with him in a more relaxed setting when they were stuck in a Texas airport together). “I’ve found him to be really interested in learning about the work that we do,” Gonzales said, “despite it being part of my job to push him as hard as possible.”

What’s on his agenda: For the first time, New York City is offering some families access to free preschool for three-year-olds, with plans to make it universally available by 2021. Wallack will oversee that effort, and will help the education department manage programs for children as young as six weeks old. He’ll also be responsible for carrying out the city’s diversity plan.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Phil Weinberg

Phil Weinberg, Deputy Chancellor Division of Teaching and Learning

Salary: $205,637

His story: Phil Weinberg began his career at Brooklyn’s High School of Telecommunication Arts and Technology — and wound up staying for 27 years. After rising to principal in 2001, Weinberg ran Telly “like the beloved mayor of a close-knit town” as the New York Times once put it, building “learning communities” within the school that helped shepherd students to graduation. In 2014, Chancellor Fariña plucked him from that post to head up a resurrected “teaching and learning” division that had been dormant for years.

His tenure got off to a rocky start, with some early staff turnover under his watch. But he was seen as a key hire to advise Chancellor Fariña on the high school world, where she has less direct experience. He’s also managed many of the mayor and chancellor’s highest-profile initiatives, from universal literacy to making computer-science classes available to all students by 2025.

What’s on his agenda: Weinberg will be responsible for making progress on many of the mayor’s key “equity and excellence” programs, including making sure more high school students have access to AP classes, expanding algebra instruction to students before they reach high school, and ensuring students are reading on grade level by the end of second grade.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Milady Baez

Milady Baez, Deputy Chancellor, Division of English Language Learners and Student Support

Salary: $198,243

Her story: A veteran educator and native of the Dominican Republic, Milady Baez started as a bilingual teacher before rising to assistant principal at Brooklyn’s P.S. 314 and principal at P.S. 149 in Queens. She rose to the role of superintendent under the Bloomberg administration, and oversaw more than a dozen schools and bilingual programs. Chancellor Fariña pulled Baez out of retirement to run a new office dedicated to English Language Learners, roughly 13 percent of the city’s student population, and was promoted to deputy chancellor in 2015.

The city has been under pressure from the state to expand bilingual programs, where native English speakers and English learners take classes in both languages, and Baez has been working to reach an ambitious goal of making those programs available to all English learners by 2018. She has earned praise from some, including Teresa Arboleda, president of the Citywide Council on English Language Learners. “I think she’s sensitive to the needs of that population,” Arboleda said. “She gets it.”

What’s on her agenda: Baez will be responsible for continuing the expansion of bilingual programs and helping train principals to better serve English learners.

Struggling Detroit schools

Scores of Detroit schools are empty eyesores. Here’s why it’s so hard to bring them back to life.

PHOTO: Anna Clark
Blackboards in the former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School still hold memories. The school closed in 2009.

The school building that Detroit Prep founder Kyle Smitley is trying — and struggling — to buy for her charter school is far from the only one sitting empty across the city.

A wave of about 200 school closures since 2000 has pockmarked the city with large, empty, often architecturally significant buildings. Some closed schools were repurposed, most often as charter schools; others were torn down. But most remain vacant, although the exact number is unclear.

Vacant schools can become crime hubs or crumbling dangers. But even if that doesn’t happen, they are disheartening reminders of Detroit’s struggle to prioritize education for its children — at the heart of communities where good schools could make a big difference.

Most residents would like to see the buildings come back to life, if not as schools, as something. But even as developers rework other vacant structures, these school buildings are rarely repurposed.

Understanding why illuminates the complexities facing Detroit’s main school district’s effort to get itself back on track.

For one, school district policies — some of which were created to discourage flipping and the opening of charter schools  —  have made selling these buildings difficult.

Smitley, the co-founder of two charter schools, wants to move Detroit Prep into the former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School by fall 2018. Detroit Prep opened in 2016 in the basement of an Indian Village church and will eventually serve 430 K-8 students.

“We’d like to be part of a positive story for Detroit, and turn a decrepit building back into a school that serves the neighborhood,” Smitley said.

Smitley is preparing to do a $4 million rehab on a building where flaking paint litters the hardwood floors. Lockers gape open. Natural sunlight floods classrooms where instructions from the last day of school are still chalked on the blackboard: “Spelling Test … George Washington Carver Reading – Timed  … Clean Desks … Take Books.”

Landlord Dennis Kefallinos bought the former Joyce school from the public school district in 2014 for $600,000. The general manager of Kefallinos’ company told Chalkbeat that they planned to repurpose it for residential use when the market seemed right, or wait a few more years to re-sell it for a large profit.

But another challenge of repurposing schools is that their complex layouts and their residential locations far from downtown do not easily adapt to other uses. And the market for former school buildings was flooded with closed public and parochial schools in recent years, which further reduced demand.  

Some developers have transformed empty Detroit schools into apartments, luxury condominiums, or a boutique office building. However, these were former Catholic schools, or, in the case of Leland Lofts, sold to a private developer more than 35 years ago. Catholic schools generally have smaller footprints, which are more manageable to renovate, and they do not have the same deed restrictions as more recently closed public schools.

PHOTO: Anna Clark
The former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School in Detroit closed in 2009.

In the case of Joyce school, Smitley’s persistence and the intervention of a mutual friend convinced the Kefallinos company to sell to Detroit Prep. She agreed to buy the building for $750,000, and to pay the district $75,000 on top of the sales price, per a condition in the original deed.

But the status of the sale is uncertain, as she and the district spar over the law and whether the district can halt the sale of the building — which it no longer owns.

On the northwest side of Detroit,  two Detroiters have been trying for years to buy the former Cooley High School to turn it into a community center, as part of the much-lauded Cooley ReUse Project. This summer, it was crowdfunding the last $10,000 it needed to finally become Cooley’s owners.

But on August 31, the project’s social media account announced that “after meeting with Detroit Public Schools Community District’s (DPSCD) new leadership, it has been confirmed that Thomas M. Cooley High School is no longer for sale. We were told that Cooley will be secured and redeveloped by its current owner, DPSCD.”

Donations are being returned to the contributors. In the meantime, the 322,000-square-foot building is vulnerable to theft and vandalism, destabilizing its northwest Detroit neighborhood.

The Cooley and Joyce schools were built when Detroit schools faced a different challenge: capacity. They opened during the fast-moving period between 1910 and 1930 when 180 new schools were built to keep up with growth. In 1966, the district peaked with 299,962 students. Since then, it has shrunk to fewer than 50,000 students.

No matter who owns a closed school building, its revival depends on its security. Failure to secure it results in profound damage by scrappers, criminals, and natural elements. That will either add millions to the cost of rehabilitation or doom it to demolition. It also threatens the neighborhood.

John Grover co-authored a major Loveland report, spending 18 months investigating 200 years of archives about public schools in Detroit, and visiting every school in the city.

Boarding vacant schools with plywood isn’t enough, he learned. As its buildings were continually vandalized, the district escalated security with welded steel doors and cameras, though even these are vulnerable. Securing a building properly costs about $100,000 upfront, and $50,000 per year ever after, according to the Loveland report. In 2007, it cost the district more than $1.5 million a year to maintain empty buildings.

Chris Mihailovich, general manager of Dennis Kefallinos’ company, said that it hasn’t been cheap to own the empty Joyce building. Taxes are high, security is expensive, grass has to be mowed in summer and snow has to be shoveled in winter.

The Joyce school is in better condition than most, which Grover credits to its dense neighborhood. “At least up until a few years ago, a retired cop lived across the street, and he watched the block and would call in if he saw anything,” Grover said.

But he remembered the fate of one elementary school in east Detroit that was in a stable neighborhood when it closed.

“It became like a hotbed for prostitution and drug dealing,” he said. “There were mattresses stacked in the gymnasium. It definitely had a negative impact on the neighborhood. … I can’t imagine people would want to live around that, and those who could get out did.”